August 27, 2011
As the laps wound down at Bristol and Jeff Gordon saw his chance at victory slipping away with every turn of the Blue Deuce ahead of him, he resigned himself to the inevitable.
"Pit road beat us tonight," Gordon said on the radio. "Not pit stops, pit road."
Gordon was vocalizing what many in the garage and NASCAR fandom had observed: by gaming the system of pit-road speed sensors, Brad Keselowski and Matt Kenseth had managed to get out in what appeared to be a far faster time than the other cars around them.
How is that possible? NASCAR checks drivers on an array of sensors lining pit road. If a driver passes between two of the sensors in too short of a time, obviously he's driving too fast, and boom, penalty. (Keselowski's teammate Kurt Busch got dinged twice for that.)
However, if you time it properly, you can speed during the segment which includes your pit stall, since the time spent in the pit itself more than offsets the time you spend "speeding." It's a time-honored tactic, one that savvy crew chiefs use to pick out their stalls at certain race tracks. And it's a tactic that tends to upset those who don't end up with those premium stalls, like Gordon, who had the best car all night but couldn't close on Keselowski in the race's final moments.
"When a guy can run 60 miles an hour down pit road and the pit road speed is, what, 35, then something is wrong with the system," Gordon said afterward, backing away somewhat from his comments that pit road cost him a win. "But even when you have one [of the good stalls] and you see the other guys have one, it's a joke that somebody can leave pit road and run that fast down pit road and then slam on the brakes. Kenseth drove by four cars and so did the 2 car when he left his pit stall. I just don't understand it."
Reaction to Keselowski's "massage" of the timing system was immediate, with many fans on both Twitter and Yahoo! Sports' NASCAR race chat charging Keselowski with "cheating." Like so much else in NASCAR, it's an ethical gray area: in absolute terms, Keselowski and Kenseth obviously sped, but in practical terms, they met the requirements of the pit road timing system.
The reason for pit road speeds, first and foremost, is safety. Pit road speeds date to 1990. Prior to that date, drivers could rip down pit road as fast as they liked. But at the 1990 Atlanta race, Ricky Rudd lost control coming onto pit road, spun and crushed Bill Elliott's tire changer against Elliott's car, killing the tire changer instantly. Since then, pit road speeds are mandatory and dependent on the track.
Which makes the Bristol issue so problematic. It's letter of the law vs. spirit of the law, and speeding in certain segments adheres to the former while violating the latter. There are fixes available — Gordon suggested a button on the steering wheel which runs the car at pit road speed, which seems a bit nanny-state — but fundamentally, this is a rule that NASCAR will have to inspect more closely. Perhaps more timing lines would help; perhaps a fundamentally new technology.
Whether or not the pit road jockeying gave Keselowski the win is debatable; he still had to drive the car once he got it off pit road. But this is a loophole which NASCAR could easily close, and likely will before the next Bristol race.
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